Set in Bangkok, "Natural Causes" is a messy, incoherent political thriller about a young American woman who finds herself in the midst of a plot to assassinate former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Pic makes good use of Bangkok's colorful scenery, but its roguish, muddled plot and maladroit, uninvolving direction should take it straight to video domestically, with some possibilities for theatrical release offshore.

Set in Bangkok, “Natural Causes” is a messy, incoherent political thriller about a young American woman who finds herself in the midst of a plot to assassinate former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Pic makes good use of Bangkok’s colorful scenery, but its roguish, muddled plot and maladroit, uninvolving direction should take it straight to video domestically, with some possibilities for theatrical release offshore.

Jake Raymond Needham’s tale begins rather suspensefully, when Rachel McCarthy (Janis Paige), an American woman, is killed in her limo on the way to the airport to meet her estranged daughter, Jessie (Linda Purl), whom she has not seen for 10 years. Upon arrival at her mother’s beautiful estate, the naive Jessie begins to realize that her mother, who lost a husband and son in the Vietnam War, was engaged in a mysterious international scheme involving Vietnamese refugees.

“Natural Causes” aims to be an engaging conspiracy story about an attempt to sabotage the reconciliation treaty between Vietnam and the U.S. Initially, its gallery of characters is colorful enough for a web of deception and international intrigue. Along the way, Jessie meets Fran Jakes (Ali MacGraw), a U.S. State Dept. official, CIA agent Michael Murphy (Will Patton) and Major Somchai (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a high-ranking Thai detective.

Unfortunately, scripter Needham concocts a hugely improbable, often preposterous stew. Pic is carried forward not by logic but by a relentlessly mechanical outline that defies narrative or political sense. Scant clues are given to the characters’ motivations, but ultimately the convoluted plot is of no particular consequence.

Novice director James Becket fails to interweave the various subplots and characters in a dramatically involving manner. And in the midst of tension, he commits a fatal error by inserting a lengthy romantic sequence between Jessie and Somchai, an interlude that literally arrests the film.

As the heroine, Purl acquits herself as a pleasant leading lady, but MacGraw is stiff in what is described as her screen comeback. Patton, usually a good offbeat character actor, is wasted, as is Tagawa.

The only reward in watching “Natural Causes” is its Thai scenery, which is well shot by Denis Maloney.

Natural Causes

Production

A Pacific Rim production. Produced, written by Jake Raymond Needham. Executive producers, Tanong Purananda, Yachitr Yuvaboon. Co-producers, Knit Kounavudhi, Joan Weidman. Directed by James Becket.

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem color), Denis Maloney; editor, Richard Fields; music, Nathan Wang; production design, Jan Holt; art direction, Sean Gundlach; set decoration, Tammy Musikadilov; costume design, Mutita Na Songkla; sound (Ultra-Stereo), Bill Robbins; associate producer/assistant director, Christine Fugate; casting, Donald Paul Pemrick. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival, March 5, 1994. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Jessie McCarthy ... Linda Purl Somchai ... Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa Michael Murphy ... Will Patton The Westerner ... Tim Thomerson Mrs. McCarthy ... Janis Paige Fran Jakes ... Ali MacGraw
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